On being a black philosopher in South Africa 

Mabogo More’s personal account, Looking Through Philosophy in Black, charts his intellectual biography as he navigated the treacherous waters of apartheid thought in universities. 

If Mabogo Percy More’s memoir is to be believed, philosophy in South Africa is akin to that condition which the Shona bemoan in mock pity: the cigarette’s fate of being bitten at one end while burning away on the other.

American philosopher Cornel West once asked, “What does it mean to be a philosopher of African descent in the American empire?” In More’s recently published Looking Through Philosophy in Black, the philosopher asks a derivative question of his own, in counterpoint: “What does it mean to be a philosopher of African descent in South Africa today?” Over the course of eight chapters, More then tries to respond to this question, which, because of the #RhodesMustFall movement, has returned to make urgent demands on the South African academy today.

In a chapter titled “Formative Years”, More asks what exactly it is about philosophy in South Africa that black folks find alienating, with the result that the subject is the one with the least number of people of colour. 

Linked to this query is how More, a black boy born in a “rat, crime and squalor-infested township jungle” ended up counting world-renowned scholars such as Caribbean philosopher Lewis R Gordon and Jamaican scholar Horace Campbell as his friends and peers. 

How did an African who, for a time, because “of the circumstances of the death of [his] father at a young age”, was a pickpocket on the trains, end up being the recipient of the 2015 Frantz Fanon Lifetime Achievement Award? A gong that has also been bestowed on Enrique Dussel, the feted Argentine scholar of liberation, and Michel Rolph-Trouillot, the great Haitian scholar whose work shifted the understanding of the Haitian revolution?

Life-defying state of affairs

The circumstances of More’s birth meant he should have died in the ghetto, in violent daily realities, or disappeared into the nooks of apartheid’s penal system. Yet, he somehow managed to escape the borders delineated for him by the accidents of his birth and colour. The clues to More’s lucky escape – that is what it was, for many talented people, as James Baldwin wrote elsewhere, ended up as ruins – are located in his brain and a love for books. “My interest in books started very early in my life when I realised that I was, relative to other kids, sufficiently smart,” he says.

He is being modest, for even though he had skipped a grade at his primary school, he still obtained a first-class pass in his standard 5 (grade 7) examination and, at secondary school, won the Best Junior Certificate Award. Yet, under peer pressure, he failed his standard 10 exam. He then had to quit school to go and work to supplement his family’s income, like the millions of black people who supplied apartheid’s thirst for cheap black labour. Against his father’s wishes and showing a resolve that would recur later in his life, More went back to school and ended up passing his matric exams. 

Even though More was from the East Rand of Johannesburg, he couldn’t enroll at the nearby University of the Witwatersrand; as a Sotho-speaking black African, he had to move to the University of the North, the “bush” institution in the former homeland of Venda, where he registered for a bachelor of arts degree in history, psychology and philosophy. 

One would think that a black university, according to the dictates of the policy of separate development, would not only have black students but also black staff. His lecturers were, instead, white teachers considered not good enough to teach at the white universities. 

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Imagine More’s surprise at seeing, during a strike, one of his professors in military garb at one of the campus entrances. His conclusion is that “more than 50% of the white lecturers at Turfloop were not only incompetent but also obviously secret security agents and police reservists”.  

More realised that in the philosophy department, none of his lecturers held a doctorate in philosophy – one of his professors held a masters in Greek – and when he compared this to institutions like Indiana University, where he later obtained his master’s degree, “then the amount of damage to my philosophical training and sophistication becomes evident”.  

The damage had, of course, already been done by the bantu education system, which systemically separated the quality of learning along lines of colour, which every black person who went to school after the Nationalists took over the country in 1948 experienced. 

More went to school in the 1950s and 1960s. In his department, indeed in the rest of the philosophical community at South African universities, they had to straddle the traditions and preferences of the two domineering tribes, the Afrikaner and the English. The latter “were outright analytical in approach”, while the Afrikaners preferred the “philosophy from the continent of Europe”. Analytical and continental philosophy are the two distinct approaches that are taught throughout the world.

From Jean-Paul Satre to Frantz Fanon

Through the doctrine of unintended consequences, More found Sartre in one of his professors’ corrupted and simplistic courses on Sartre’s ideas on phenomenology. The South African lecturer’s dalliances with the French philosopher later resulted in More’s doctoral thesis, which he did at the University of South Africa (Unisa), titled Jean-Paul Sartre and the Problem of Racism.  

Even though it was Sartre who helped him make sense of his being, it was the Martinican-Algerian theorist Fanon who meant the most to him when he read him while studying for his honours degree. Of course, Fanon was not part of the curriculum – how could that have been allowed under apartheid? 

Like contraband, Fanon’s text The Wretched of the Earth was furtively passed around among the students, having been smuggled from the university library by Sibusiso “S’bu” Ndebele, later a minister in ANC governments, then working as a librarian at the institution.

In 1975, when one of More’s lecturers left the university, the newly vacated post was advertised and More applied and got the job of junior lecturer. Had he gotten the job because he was, to take a phrase from the late 1990s, a “good black”? 

About this phenomenon, the don of psychology Noel Chabani Manganyi has written that “when it came to the appointment of  black members of staff, white senior academics chose their black protégés scrupulously”. 

There is a moment of reflection as More wonders why he got the job: “As a matter of fact, I was not a political activist, although I was politically conscious. Student politics at that time was predicated on being articulate in English, demagoguery and courage – three qualities I lacked in abundance.”  To be fair, the first two attributes remain important, even in today’s student politics. 

Shifting the geography of reason

It was during those years as a teacher that More started working out his approaches to pedagogy. In one of his classes, More had a student who liked to argue, sometimes engaging him one-on-one to the exclusion of the rest of the class. Yet this student could not write, finding it difficult to put her ideas on paper. When he recognised this, More arranged that her examinations be oral. When he met this student about 30 years later, she told him she had become a successful motivational speaker.  

It seems pointless, in a society in which the inferiority of the black person was accepted as the doing of fate and providence, to even mention the racism of More’s lecturers. But this deserves to be flagged because in some ways, two decades after the advent of democracy, this way of thinking persists, not only in the academy but also in the rest of South African society.  

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One of More’s lecturers, professor Frederick Engelbrecht, published a paper in 1972 titled Tyd en Neurose by die Bantoe [Time and Neuroses in the Bantu]. Engelbrecht argued: “The tempo of the bantu is slow – slower than that of the white. You can see a different time in their bodily movements, in the things of their world, in their places, in the whole landscape in which they exist.” 

Today, this kind of thinking operates more clandestinely. What the racist would say now is something along the lines of what the University of Cape Town philosopher Augustine Shutte said about traditional African thought processes such as Ubuntu or Hunhu, in Shona. These systems of thought, Shutte argued, have not “undergone rigorous philosophical scrutiny and assessment. Traditional thought simply assumed their coherence and truth and did not seek to systematise or prove them. Philosophy as a rigorous, self-critical intellectual discipline is a comparative newcomer to modern Africa.”

Towards new intellectual vistas

On 2 January 1980, at the age of 33, escaping this kind of “scholarship”, More boarded a plane for the first time and headed to Indiana in the United States. He carried a document that wasn’t quite a passport, on which was written “onbepaldbaar” under the category of nationality. This translates as “undetermined”.  

He had received a scholarship to study for his masters, a second one – not that the Americans would have recognised his Unisa master’s degree, which he had submitted in 1979. It was here that vast intellectual vistas opened up in ways unimaginable in South Africa. He didn’t stay for long, though. “The desire to be reunited with my daughter, who was barely six months old when I left for Indiana, was compelling.” 

On returning to South Africa with his American degree, he went back to his old job at the University of the North but the wanderer bug had bitten, making his feet itchy for new climes. This resulted in fellowships abroad at Birmingham University, where the doyen of cultural studies Stuart Hall was in his pomp; he also spent time at the University of Illinois in the US, in a state that “boasts more universities and colleges than some countries in Africa”. 

It was here that More got “into serious contact with African philosophy and African-American philosophy on racism”. Following  a fellowship at Harvard University, where “people on campus seemed to gossip about ideas”, More, not letting the opportunity to make a dig at the local academy pass him by, adds, “in the way some of us in South African universities gossiped about people”. 

That climate was in part because of the presence at the famed institution of the “dream team” of Henry Louis Gates Jr, Cornel West, Kwame Antony Appiah and other notable scholars and writers such as Manning Marable, bell hooks, Angela Davis and Wole Soyinka, who were based at or passed through the institution. 

More returned to South Africa, still without his doctorate degree, towards the end of the 1980s. In 1989, when the rumour, gossip and smell of change hung over the South African firmament, he received an offer from the University of Cape Town, which he turned down. 

“I couldn’t resist the suspicion that I was going to be used as window dressing, because they wanted to establish a new course titled Philosophy in the South African Context, and therefore give it legitimacy by employing a black philosopher as its coordinator.” 

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Instead, he opted for a position at the University of Durban-Westville, where his colleagues were involved in the kind of philosophy he was interested in, courses like liberation politics, feminist philosophy and Marxism. After all, “the primary concern of the black philosopher is thus the relations of beings in society as opposed to the place of the human being in the universe”, More contends. “People who are rooted, who find it worthwhile to pursue abstract metaphysical entities in the universe, belong to the dominant group because they enjoy a certain kind of security about their position in society.”

More is much like the cigarette in the Shona saying, being gnawed on while it burns away. Despite his eminent status in the global philosophical world (as is proved by the Frantz Fanon Lifetime Award), he has had periods where he was unemployed and passed over for jobs in favour of those who have spouted racist thought.  

Yet More’s book, part biography, part philosophy and part rant, isn’t the unrelenting diatribe it could easily have been. He is warm and generous about the people he has met along the way; his love for and adoration of Lewis R Gordon is palpable. He has also dedicated a chapter to the place and importance of jazz in the South African township. 

More is unrestrained in his praise for the young Unisa-based scholar Tendayi Sithole, about whose book Steve Biko: Decolonial Meditations of Black Consciousness, he writes, “This book is a marvel of theoretical rigour and creativity” and about whose mind he enthuses, “His penetrating intellect has helped me to recommit myself to scholarship and deepen my commitment to the life of the mind at an age when intellectual inspiration is hard to come by.”

In these decolonial times, Looking Through Philosophy in Black, More’s elegantly written and lucid book, is required reading. Not only for those in the academy but for everyone who cares about ideas and wants to see substantive transformation in South Africa. 

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